Full disclosure… some parts of this post may be difficult to read. Discretion is advised. This post is an effort to educate and inform about how our meat is raised and processed and how that differs from industrial practices.
Processing day is the hardest on the farmer. It’s a great day in that it’s the day you get to provide your customers with the naturally-grown meat that they have been patiently waiting on for months. It’s a great day in that we get paid for our hard work and effort producing all the wonderful food. But it’s a terrible day in that the farmer has to load up the animals he has carefully tended for their entire lives and take them to be killed.
That’s a very hard thing to do. These animals are food animals. That’s the only reason they exist. Without farmers, there would not be enough food to furnish all people on earth with food. Farmers actually produce a surplus of food in relation to the caloric needs of the 7+ billion people on the planet. The reason starvation exists in some areas is a function of distribution, equity, and social justice, not a shortage in the food supply. Moreover, at Good Life Ranch we raise heritage livestock breeds. These breeds were the ones bred to survive in the time before antibiotics, wormers, and grain feeding regimens. As such, they perform better under natural management conditions than the modern breeds that have been developed with these modern crutches to help prop them up. But in a twist that is hard for some people to understand, to preserve these breeds we have to create a demand for their products. We have to create a market for the healthier meats our great-grandparents used to eat. If there is no market for their meat, these heritage breeds will disappear forever.
The disappearance of heritage livestock breeds would be an unmitigated disaster. Their genomes are a repository for traits that are diluted or entirely absent in the industry-standard modern breeds. These new breeds are so specialized that their narrowed gene pools may offer little in the way of genetic diversity to withstand new epidemics, the failure of antibiotics, or the shift in climate now occurring worldwide. Heritage breeds, taken in total, offer a far wider range of genetic variation to withstand our changing world.
As an example, we raised the modern Cornish x White Rock broiler chickens for a time – the same birds that are the only ones available if you buy your meat from a grocery store, a restaurant, or even the vast majority of small organic farms. They grow fast, they’re ready for processing in 6 weeks, they are efficient in terms of feed, and they are resistant to the crowding and filth found in industrial poultry houses. So what’s the problem with them? They don’t do well outside when they have to act like chickens. This hybrid breed has lost its ability to thrive under natural conditions. They die in the cold. They die in the rain. They die in the heat. They can’t walk well. They aren’t fast enough to catch bugs, and the ones they can catch aren’t sufficient to sustain their rapid growth rates. In short, if a farmer wants to rotate birds around pasture outdoors without using small pens crowded with 100 birds this is NOT the breed for you.
We now raise slower-growing, more flavorful, hardier heritage breeds. But it is hard to sell them, even though customers say that they want them. They don’t look like grocery store birds. They have a narrower breast, larger legs and thighs, and yellow fat from the grasses, seeds, and insects that they have foraged. They are more expensive to produce, since they live more than twice as long, and therefore they have to be more expensive. Also, we have found that most customers have never acquired the cooking skills to make use of them. Many customers do not know how to break down a whole chicken to cook it or how to cook leaner meats more slowly to render the unsaturated fats and release the superior flavor. Education is needed. We must relearn the skills of the older generations.
We just dropped a pair of steers off at the processor’s last week, so let me walk you through what happens during all steps of the process. I’ll use beef as our example, since that is what we are helping customers with right now.
First, at Good Life Ranch purebred Red Poll cattle are raised on grass alone for 30 months. The herd gets a fresh allotment of pasture every day to move away from manure and to allow the recovery of the grass sward. They have water and free-choice access to mineral salt. They quickly learn that their farmer coming means a shift to fresh grass and become very calm very quickly. Cows are very easy to teach a routine. The older cattle teach the younger ones, and our entire herd knows the drill now. They know what area I am taking them to next and wait patiently for me to open it up to them. They live together as a herd and are never alone. Even our bulls are never kept alone. They have a bull herd during the non-breeding season and then rotate with the cows during the summer and fall.
Our beef animals are born on pasture during the warmth of late spring and grow up alongside their mothers, older siblings, and even grandmothers and great-grandmothers living a cow’s dream life for 2.5 years. This is in contrast to most beef animals, which are processed much earlier. The reason for this is simple physiology. If a farmer (or, usually, a feedlot) puts a beef animal on a diet full of grain, that animal can be force-fattened while it is young. Fat and marbling can be gained simply by overfeeding the animal. This leads to all sorts of health problems for the beef animal, and it must be processed while it is very young before its rumen and liver fail from processing such an unnaturally high-calorie grain diet. With a grass-only beef like ours, the farmer must allow time for the animal to complete the growth of its skeletal and muscular systems. In other words, once the animal has reached its adult frame size fat will be added naturally. But not sooner. Part of the reputation grass-fed beef has for being “too lean” or for having “off-flavors” comes from farmers who are still slaughtering their beef at an age that is too young for the animal to be ready to eat. It hasn’t marbled, it hasn’t fattened, it hasn’t developed flavor yet.
Before we take a large animal to the processor, we have to walk through the butchering instructions with our customers. We have make sure that the customers understand where all the cuts of meat come from. It’s really enlightening for some people when they learn how few quality steaks actually come from a single beef, for instance. They quickly gain an appreciation for why steaks are so much more expensive than ground meat. The customers also have to understand that the more meat they get back as steaks and roasts, the less ground beef there will be. We also try to convince our customers to learn how to cook the offerings that most people do not want, in order to make better use of the whole animal. These are useful, healthy, but underutilized items like soup bones, heart, liver, oxtail, shanks, and head.
Once we have the processing instructions, we load the steer into the trailer. This is done as calmly as possible because stress hormones actually toughen the meat and impart off-flavors. We create a chute with corral panels, put some nice hay into the trailer to tempt the steers to enter on their own, and then shut the door once they are busy munching. Then we take them on the short drive to the processor’s. Both processors we use are 10-20 minutes away, so it’s a short drive. Usually the steers are still eating the hay when we arrive.
At the processor’s the cattle are walked off of the trailer. They are kept calm and where they can see each other. They are herd animals; they have grown up together all of their lives; they don’t like to be separated. We deliberately work with processors that treat our animals as humanely as possible. This is a bad day, to be sure. But we want the kill to be swift, painless, and humane. We won’t use a processor who bungles this part. We know of some who use cattle prods, crowding, yell, scream, and basically terrify the animals into position. We refuse to work with them. Our cattle have never had a bad day up until now, and we make sure our processors understand that and eliminate the suffering. I watch. It happens very fast and, while I cannot say for certain, there does not seem to be any pain involved. It is as different from what happens in the videos of industrial slaughterhouses as I can make it. Watch videos from slaughterhouses released by whistle-blowers, PETA, and others and you will immediately see the difference.
Afterwards, the beef is skinned and the innards are removed. The hide goes to become leather and the innards are composted or incinerated. We prefer the processor who composts the innards because then that material can be reused to add fertility to the land.
The beef is then halved lengthwise and the 2 halves are hung in a cooling room for around 2 weeks. The timeframe can be longer or shorter, depending upon the fat covering on the animal, but 2 weeks is about standard. This hanging processes ages the meat and adds flavor and tenderness. It is at this point that the carcass can be graded as well. Grades are assigned based on the fat content and marbling of the meat.
The photo above shows one half of one of the steers we took in hanging in the cooling room. I apologize for not being able to fit the entire length of the animal in one shot, but the room was small and iPhone cameras are what they are.
You’ll notice that the beef is lean, but still has a nice covering of fat. The fat coverage was nicer than the other beeves in the cooling room, none of which were grass-finished. It is also yellowish. That yellow color comes from the carotenes in the plants that the animal has been eating its entire life and is the source of the grass-fed flavor and healthier fat profile (omega-3 to omega-6 ratio) of a grass-only animal. All the other beeves in the room other than our 2 had solid white fat, which means it is more saturated and heavier in omega-6’s. Those animals had eaten more grain than grass. There wasn’t a lot of difference in the amounts of fat between the different animals, only in the color and texture. The difference in texture was unbelievable to me. I apologize for not taking a picture of a grain-finished beef for comparison. I just didn’t think about it at the time.
After the hanging process has tenderized and added flavor to the meat, the butcher makes the cuts of meat that the customer has ordered. He (or she) quarters the animal, trims and cuts the steaks and roasts, and then grinds the burger. The photo below shows the portions of the animal from which the various cuts of beef come, or the options the customer and processor have for each area of the animal, depending upon which perspective you are coming. The processing sheet above reflects these options, although each processor is likely to have created their own sheet and have their own options.
The meat is then packaged in vacuum bags (some processors use paper if the customer prefers, but the vacuum bags keep freezer burn at bay better) and flash frozen. It is then ready for the customers to pick up. They then pay the processor his fees, which for both the processors we use are very reasonable. The beef will be labeled “Not for Sale” if it was processed under custom inspection, meaning that the customer cannot resell the meat to someone else. Meat processed by Good Life Ranch for resale at farmers’ markets and The Market on Main in Somerset, KY will have undergone USDA inspection and will be marked as such.
We have found the Red Poll beef to live up to its billing as flavorful and tender. The first steaks we tried were New York strips, and they were so tender I barely had to use the knife. It is simply phenomenal.
As you can see, it takes a lot to get beef, or any other meat, from the farm to your plate. It is our hope at Good Life Ranch to serve customers who want to understand the whole process; who want to eat better quality food; who want to support local farmers; who want to ensure the survival of heritage breeds of livestock and food plants; and who want to make sure that the meat they eat is raised with the upmost in care and compassion.